Interview with Katka Letzing, FinTech Vertical Lead Kickstart Accelerator

Interview with Katka Letzing, FinTech Vertical Lead Kickstart Accelerator
Katka Letzing, Kickstart Accelerator Program Co-Lead & FinTech Vertical Lead

By Helmuth Fuchs

Moneycab: Katka Letzing, you are responsible for the Fintechs in the Kickstart Accelerator Program in Zurich. When is the application deadline for the next batch and what startups are you looking for in the Fintech vertical?

Katka Letzing: We`ve just extended our deadline for applications to June 10th. We have received many interesting applications so far and are looking forward to seeing even more come in. We’re inviting startups and scaleups with a promising technology or business model in one of our four verticals – EdTech & Learning, Food & Retail Tech and Smart Cities & Infrastructure in addition to FinTech & Crypto – to apply. This year, our general focus is on the so-called deep technologies: New, science or engineering driven technologies such as AI, IoT, Blockchain or Big Data. So, in the FinTech Vertical, we are specifically looking for mature startups that apply those technologies in the fields of open banking, smart contracts, wealth management, crypto or distributed ledger.

„In the FinTech Vertical, we are specifically looking for mature startups in the fields of open banking, smart contracts, wealth management, crypto or distributed ledger.“ Katka Letzing, FinTech Vertical Lead Kickstart Accelerator

What support and services will startups get to successfully master the program, once they are accepted?

At Kickstart Accelerator, we strongly believe that innovation only happens in collaboration with different partners, not in isolation. That’s why our main goal is to bring startups together with our corporate partners in order to initiate innovation partnerships. Therefore, the participating startups receive direct access to top executives and decision-makers at our partners such as Credit Suisse, the retailers Coop and Migros, Swisscom, the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich, the cities of Zurich and St. Gallen, and many others. In innovation workshops and collaboration training, the startups learn how to work with these partners. Additionally, the program provides high-quality mentoring from entrepreneurial experts as well as a dedicated fund to foster partnership projects.
Throughout the program, founders receive free coworking-space in the innovation space Kraftwerk in Zurich as well as stipends.

Everybody is looking for the next unicorn (startup valued at one billion USD). How likely is it, that you breed one of these in your program and which external factors foster the development of such companies?

Coming from Silicon Valley, I definitely understand the hunger for unicorns. It has been great to see increasing numbers of companies become the next potential unicorn representing Switzerland. Kickstart certainly offers a strong proposition for founders with the ability to develop very valuable companies. We don’t take equity, nor do we charge any fees to the startups. Founders do not get distracted by “schooling” them in yet another startup program, but they get unprecedented access to top corporates, leading research institutions and other partners. In the deep technologies, the next unicorn will be the one to successfully collaborate with various players. And that’s what Kickstart is accelerating.

However, let’s also not forget that it is not all about valuations, but also about the problems that the startups are solving, the ambition to develop a great technology and the values to put one’s energy to something meaningful.

One of the goals of attracting the best startups from all over the world is, that some of them might start a business in Switzerland and help grow the local startup scene. Did that already happen in the last batch? 

Yes, it has. A good number of last year`s participants have built up a strong bond with Switzerland. For example, the 2016 alumnus and VC-funded company, Project Rosie (formerly Tio) has brought its whole business from London to Zurich thanks to Kickstart Accelerator. Same for the breakfast delivery company Dalou.

„A good number of last year`s participants have built up a strong bond with Switzerland.“

Others are planning to open an office in Zurich in the coming months: For example, the Finnish startup Fjuul, which started cooperating with a partner from last year, Helsana, as well as Farmerline, a startup from Ghana. And many others have started to work closely with Swiss companies; the Munich startup Hawa Dawa just launched a pilot project with the City of Bern and Swiss Post, and the Singapore startup uHoo is working with Swisscom and Ricola. The founder of that company was just spotted at Kraftwerk in Zurich last week having a business meeting, alongside the other startups that visit us on a weekly basis. It’s great to see how our alumni startups keep up their relationships in Switzerland.

Switzerland with its long tradition as a leading financial marketplace is well positioned to also have an advantage in the Fintech space. Where do we live up to the expectations, where do we have to improve?

Switzerland is very rich when it comes to its number of financial institutions and that has been a great asset for our startups, which are always looking for an opportunity to access possible clients and strategic partnerships including investments. The same goes for the corporations because it brings more opportunities for further collaboration and joint projects in the form of Proofs-of-Concept and other types of partnerships. Regulatory challenges, as well as legacy systems, sometimes hinder the process though it has improved a lot in past years, and I believe there is an opportunity for further improvement. One of the most exciting things is that startups bring experience from abroad and so the collaborations that have been formed are an exchange with Swiss corporations sharing their experiences, which I find to be very valuable for the Swiss FinTech ecosystem and for future collaboration.

With the Crypto Valley in Zug we have one of the prime locations for blockchain and cryptocurrency startup hubs nearby. How does that impact your work of finding potentially successful startups for your program?

We have been engaged in some of the initiatives at Crypto Valley with great interest and think that collaborating with their partners is very important. That’s why we also participated in the Blockchain and Crypto Valley Summits this year to find possibilities to collaborate and find even more synergies. This year, we put more focus on crypto and blockchain in comparison to previous years, and there is significant interest coming from our partners as well. In only the last year, we have engaged actively in two blockchain proofs-of-concept, and we hope to grow that further.

„At Kickstart Accelerator, we strongly believe that innovation only happens in collaboration with different partners, not in isolation.“

The F10 Incubator & Accelerator is another excellent platform for Fintechs in Zurich. Where do you complement each other, where do you compete with your offerings?

Yes, we increasingly collaborate with different innovation incubators and accelerators in Switzerland, including F10. All of them are important to the Swiss ecosystem. For example, we have accelerated alumni of their program, Veezoo and Apiax, which has been very successful. Both had a chance to negotiate pilots and commercial projects with our partners. Together, we focus on strengthening the Swiss ecosystem as well as supporting startups on their journeys.

Currently, our organization also contributes to the Market Entry Bootcamp, an initiative of digitalswitzerland that involves many innovation programs supporting 50 international startups; instead of running just another startup accelerator, Kickstart is actually a program to accelerate partnerships among diverse partners, including top later-stage startups, in order to help deep technology innovation thrive. This approach fits very well alongside other strong programs focusing on earlier-stage startups.

Financial institutions engage with Startups primarily to have access to ideas, innovative solutions or talents. How do you work with corporates, what is their motivation to support the program?

Technological and digital development is currently changing all industries and most areas of life in general. Internet-driven business models have already led to profound changes in several established industries and deep technologies will have an even greater impact. Large corporations, SMEs, cities and also universities find themselves in competition with new organizations that were founded just a few years ago. At Kickstart Accelerator, these traditional organizations have the chance to find and apply new technology solutions and to enter into innovative collaborations with startups. Kickstart enables them to tap into the culture of fast-moving and innovative technology companies – and at the same time offers these startups and scaleups direct access to these established players.

„More than 30 CEOs and top executives of Switzerland’s largest corporates and institutions have confirmed their participation at one of our main events in order to meet the startups.“

This approach is received well; We get a lot of interest from corporations, cities, universities, and foundations to partner with the program – this includes strong interest from executive board level: More than 30 CEOs and top executives of Switzerland’s largest corporates and institutions have confirmed their participation at one of our main events in order to meet the startups. For us, C-level engagement is very important. We encourage them to actively take part in the program, to meet the startup founders face to face and to directly discuss possible partnership projects with them.

And following that last question, what can startups expect from your corporate partners?

They receive unprecedented access to top executives and decision-makers at our partners. They will work closely together with the goal of initiating PoCs or other joint projects – which can even lead to commercial partnerships. And of course, there is a lot of knowledge transfer; the startups can learn a lot from established corporates and organizations, and vice versa.

Most all the biggest IT companies like Google, IBM or Microsoft have major operations in Switzerland. How does that profit your program and maybe the startups when they want to stay in Zurich after having finished the program?

We work closely together with Google, as Impact Hub Zurich is Switzerland’s Google for Entrepreneurs hub, as well as partnering with IBM and Microsoft in the last two years. Some of them have been engaged in projects with our startups, for example, Nivaura from the UK together with Microsoft, and all of them have been involved in a content contribution, and with mentoring our startups, which has been important to us. Hence, international deep tech startups enter an outstanding business environment when joining Kickstart.

What are the next important developments in the Fintech space that will shape the future of the finance industry?

I believe that there are many opportunities. On the more traditional side of FinTech, we have seen many interesting projects connected to LegalTech, and InsurTech, as well as technologies connected to AI and Machine Learning. Next to that, there are many interesting, and more and more advanced pilots in the blockchain, for example between Blocko and Credit Suisse, as well as between AAAcell and UBS, which are a proof of concepts that can grow into projects that help shape the financial industry.

At the end of the interview, you are granted two wishes. What are these?

I feel very excited about what has been created in the past two years in collaboration with important ecosystem players in Switzerland and abroad, including corporations, public institutions and other organizations, as well as startups. My wish is to grow this ecosystem, as well as related projects, which can make a real difference and create long-term collaboration that results in positive impact at scale, great stories, and important strategic partnerships.

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